“Mulan” is a wonderful piece of Disney animation and storytelling that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. “Mulan II” may be less inspired, but it’s also one of the best direct-to-video sequels that Disney animators have made. Put the movies together into a single package and it makes for a solid double feature.
The story of “Mulan” is epic, and so is the canvas it’s painted on, with battle scenes and shots of the Imperial City stretching the usual Disney narrative to much bigger dimensions. Except for one song sung by Donny Osmond that stands out in an unflattering way, the music is a nice complement. You actually remember the songs after they’re sung.
“Mulan” also offers a dramatic structure that will have viewers on the edge of their seats for the whole 88 minutes, featuring the strongest and most human of the Disney “princesses.” I use quotation marks because Fa Mulan (Ming-Na) isn’t really a princess. She’s the daughter of a famous retired Chinese general (James Shigeta) who, in the opening sequences, causes such chaos during her “proper behavior for a girl” lessons that a matchmaker shouts that she will never bring honor to her family by marrying well. No matter, her father says. Some people are late bloomers, and besides, there are other ways to bring honor to the family. But first, Mulan brings dishonor.
The story of Mulan is based on an ancient Chinese poem called “The Ballad of Mulan,” about a girl who disguises herself as a man so she can pretend to be her father’s nonexistent son and spare the frail man from a second term of military service. In the poem, no one suspects a thing until years later her soldier buddies visit her and see her dressed as a woman. But, of course, there’s not much dramatic arc if a woman dresses like a man and passes undetected, then is rewarded by the Emperor afterward for her service. Here, there’s interest and tension over Mulan’s clumsiness and the feminist streak that makes her not give a cricket’s wing about pleasing men, which yields to tension over whether she’ll be detected during training or battle. If that happens, the law says she must be put to death.
More tension comes as a result of Li Shang (B.D. Wong), the good-looking captain responsible for training the recruits and leading them into battle against the invading Huns. He’s both taskmaster and potential love-interest.
All of China has had to send soldiers to help ward off the invading Huns, who are led by a doublewide fellow with a mean streak the size of a mountain pass, and Shan-Yu (Miguel Ferrer) is crafty enough to launch a secret attach on the Imperial City. Like any good plot, new complications come as the terrain shifts, culminating in a “Diehard”-style fight between the good guys and bad that’s awash with color. But what makes this film work on the same level of the Disney animated classics is the level of character development. Mulan is confident, but she also has doubts. She’s a born feminist, but she also falls in love and has to negotiate new behavior. She trusts her instincts, but it’s not all hunches. Mulan, like Shang, has a good head on her shoulders. Perhaps best of all, in a world dominated by Disney princesses and happily-ever-after marketing, the romantic angle is downplayed, giving way to the heroic and the issues of civic duty, family honor, and loyalty to friends (or family or country) that play themselves out.
The family dynamic between Mulan and her feisty grandmother, wise and sagely father, and supportive mother is as strong as we’ve seen in Disney, who sent a research team to China. The result is a blend of cultural-historical accuracy and deliberate departures, with cartoon characters inserted for comic relief and songs and voices in English that belie strict adherence to ethnicity. The laughs come not at the expense of these decent people, but as the result of the clash of ideals and with gags involving a trio of incompetent army recruits and two cutesy animals. This is, after all, Disney, and the formula of late is to pair one or two rambunctious critters with the princess and/or prince.
Here, Eddie Murphy takes on the fast-talking role of Mushu, a pint-sized dragon with big ambitions. He wants to be a guardian of the family, not just some decoration on a gong whose job it is to summon the family council of long-dead ancestors to talk about Mulan and her impending crises. Murphy’s routine is pretty much what we would later see in “Shrek,” but here he’s the “leader” with a little cricket who functions as a mime sidekick. Like the angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Mushu has a side agenda. He’s trying to earn his place in the Fa family spiritual world, and somehow finagles a chance to tail and keep an eye on Mulan.
Somehow it all works, probably because the Hun leader and his screeching bird of prey make for a threatening enough villain and all of the other elements fall just as nicely into place.
There isn’t as much depth in the direct-to-video sequel, which is lighter and lacks a villain. Questions in logic abound, starting with the basic premise. The Huns are approaching again, only this time the Emperor doesn’t just send out a call for all provinces and kingdoms to join forces to defend China in their common interest. This time, the only way he can apparently win the support of a northern kingdom is to send three daughters (Lucy Liu, Sandrah Oh, Lauren Tom) to marry sons of an obstinate ruler who will only fight the Huns if his sons are married off. Meanwhile, Shang has proposed to Mulan, and the heroes of the first film have been called into action by the Emperor (Pat Morita) again. Their mission: to deliver those three princesses safely, which, of course, runs against Mulan’s best instincts. She’s marrying for love, while these three are being shipped off to tie the knot with men they’ve never seen before.
The second test of logic comes when Shang tells the Emperor he only wants to take three good men to help with the mission. Yeah, he picks the three bumbling misfits from the first film, who through luck managed to help save the day: the one-eyed and burly little Yao (Harvey Fierstein), the monstrous always-hungry Chien-Po (Jerry Tondo), and the skinny buffoon Ling (Gedde Watanabe).
In pure formulaic fashion, these three louts, who, like Mulan in the previous film were pronounced impossible to find mates for by a matchmaker, end up falling for the three princesses and (logic-be-stretched) vice versa. That’s the thing about Disney sequels. They tend to be a little neater and tidier. More children appear, and there are always subtle “how to be a princess” lessons. In “Mulan II,” as the three women rethink their oath to go through with arranged marriages, Mulan and Shang (Ming-Na and B.D. Wong, again) begin to have second thoughts about their own impending nuptials. And Mushu? His agenda this time is to try to break apart Mulan and Shang so he can keep his job as the Fa family guardian.
Still, I’ve watched a lot of Disney sequels this year, and compared to the others “Mulan II” shines. The original voice talent returns, and the artwork and animation is darned close to what we got in the first film. There are plenty of inventive match cuts and shots where the surroundings are mirrored in water—the kind of sophisticated animation you normally only see in theatrical releases. And despite how “pat” the plot is, it’s still engaging. So are the songs. The only thing missing, really, is a strong villain, and that’s really not the way this journey was set up.
“Mulan” is presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio, while the sequel is in 1.78:1 widescreen. Both look superb, though the sequel is infused with more light throughout, which can make it appear slightly overexposed. “Mulan” manages to retain detail even in night scenes, with no instances of crush. Colors seem faithful to the watercolor-look of the film in theatrical presentation, and apart from just a few instances of haloing the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer delivers a superb picture.
Both films sport an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio that’s nicely (and logically) distributed across the channels, with rear speakers fairly active throughout in the first film but not nearly as dynamic in the sequel. Tones are clear, timbre is rich, and both soundtracks are free of distortion. Subtitles are in English SDH, French and Spanish, with additional audio options of French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 for both films.
This 2 Movie Collection contains the 15th Anniversary edition of “Mulan” and “Mulan II” on one Blu-ray disc, and each movie on separate DVDs stacked on a taller spindle. As with the recent “Hunchback of Notre Dame” double feature, the DVD extras are included but there’s no additional HD content made especially for this release.
The “Mulan” Blu-ray offers a commentary by producer Pam Coats and directors Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook; seven deleted scenes that run roughly 20 minutes; music videos by Christina Aguilera, Stevie Wonder and 98 degrees, Raven, Lucero (in Spanish), and Jackie Chan (in Mandarin); a Songs of Mulan featurette; a multi-language scene of Osmond’s number; Mulan’s Fun Facts and five Backstage Disney featurettes (56 min.): The Journey Begins, Story Artists’ Journey, Design, Production, and Digital Production.
“Mulan II” on Blu-ray features four deleted scenes (10 min.), a very brief Voices of Mulan featurette, and an Atomic Kitten music video.
Those features repeat, for the most part, on the DVDs for each title.
I’ve softened my view on “Mulan II” over the years, convinced now that this double feature merits an 8 out of 10—especially if you watch them back-to-back and see how, despite a lighter tone in the follow-up, the two films flow surprisingly well from one to the next. “Mulan” merits an 8 out of 10, while the sequel is solid enough for a 7.